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WHY METRICS? (with Julie Thomas)

We at Polis Institute recently partnered with Orlando Nonprofit Alliance (ONA) to lead a workshop on “Harnessing the Power of Metrics.” The purpose will be to help nonprofit organizations understand why and how to use metrics to improve their work. Julie Thomas, MNM Data and Reporting Analysis Consultant for Polis, will moderate the June 28th, 2019 workshop, hosted by Nova Southeastern University.

Thomas has spent over 15 years working in education, healthcare, and nonprofits. She was a teacher in Indianapolis before relocating to Orlando in 2006 where she held various positions with Advent Health. In her roles, she has served as an internal consultant to hospital leaders, where she assisted them with understanding departmental and organizational data points, as well as applying best practices to improve the experience of their patients, employees, and overall performance of their department. Julie also managed the new employee onboarding program. Her contribution led to improve patient experience, employee engagement, and employee retention.

In this interview, Julie Thomas shares her expertise on how to effectively use metrics in the nonprofit industry for successful outcomes.

Why is it important to create and maintain clear metrics?

I’ve spent the last week watching landscapers tear up my backyard, lay pavers, and build a retaining wall. It was fascinating watching them place the pavers together brick by brick in an intricate pattern that fit perfectly in the footprint of the new patio. I know that this was not by accident or luck. The workman spent a lot of time measuring and grading the space before they even laid the first brick. And afterwards, they measured again to ensure that it was level and the size and shape that we requested.

Could you imagine what would have happened if the landscapers would have just started to lay down the first pavers wherever they thought it should go, without a single measurement? Very likely we would have ended up with a crooked patio. Or the workman would have had to restart over and over and over again when they realized that the bricks weren’t lining up, wasting a lot of valuable time and energy. But so often we see organizations do something similar. They may start programs with good intentions and deploy activities without first determining what success looks like and how to evaluate their progress toward that successful outcome.

The work and effort that this team of landscapers put into preparing for the project by planning their measurements and then making adjustments during the installation and afterwards resulted in a beautiful new patio that my family can enjoy. In the same way, it’s important that organizations use data and measurement to plan for their activities and programs then evaluate as they go, so that the execution of their strategy is not done haphazardly.

How does one begin to build out meaningful metrics for their organization?

First, organizations need to determine what change they are trying to make and how their activities affect that change.  If we do X, then Y will happen. Take, for example, the desired change of improving educational outcomes for 3rd grade students who aren’t reading at grade level. One “If/Then” statement could be: IF we provide weekly, one-on-one tutoring for students in reading, THEN their reading comprehension will improve.

If tutoring is the activity that you will utilize to create the desired change, you then can build out the measurements you need for the program, which include inputs (e.g. program budget, staff or volunteer hours, curriculum development), outputs (e.g. the number of students tutored or hours of tutoring), and outcomes (e.g. student test score). Goals or targets can be set for each of these items.

How do you go about measuring impact?

Impact is trickier to measure because oftentimes it may take months or even years to see. In our tutoring example, the impact in educational outcomes might not be observable until the 3rd grader graduates from high school or college, or finds fulfilling employment. While 3rd grade reading levels are certainly important, the long-term goal may be that the students experience vocational and economic stability as adults. It is possible to measure for the long-term impact by following up with your program’s clients after they complete the program. However, you can also work backward and consider what short-term outcomes you expect to see as a result of your program or activities and plan how to measure for those.

What are the best ways for an organization to utilize metrics once they’ve been established?

Have a plan! It’s much easier and more effective to plan for measurement and evaluation before the program begins. After you determine what you are going to measure (i.e. inputs, outputs, and outcomes), then focus on the details, such as how it will be measured, by whom, how often, etc. And importantly, plan for how the data will be reviewed by the organization to ensure that the program goals are on track and adjustments can be made as needed.

Just like my landscapers had a plan for building a patio, organizations need to incorporate measurement and evaluation when planning for and executing their programs. It is an essential part of strategic thinking and crucial for successful outcomes.